PRICES of betel nuts in the CNMI have more than doubled due to the ban on imports from Guam and fears of a possible shortage of betel nuts after Typhoon Sudal struck Yap.
Betel nuts now sell 25 cents a piece or $1 per package of four, said Isidro Cabrera, agricultural consultant of Northern Marianas College’s Cooperative Research, Extension and Education Service.
Before the ban, a piece of betel nut cost 10 cents or lower.
Cabrera said the CNMI produces approximately 4.8 million betel nuts a year. Yet it still imports about 100,000 betel nuts from Yap every month and several thousands from Guam.
But since last week, betel nuts from Guam had been banned due to the fungal infection plaguing the island’s southern betel nut farms.
The ban will last until August, unless extended or rescinded.
“If Guam continues to have a declining production because of the disease that it is experiencing nowadays, it’s going to be a big problem for betel nut chewers. Another big problem right now is Yap. Yap supplements the betel nut consumption of the CNMI but as you know, it was struck by a typhoon,” Cabrera told reporters.
“Unfortunately, with the big typhoon that came to Yap, I don’t think we will get enough supply of betel nuts,” he added.
Guam’s betel nuts are said to be affected with a fungal infection called phytophthora meadii that thrives in rainy weather and can be carried by the wind.
The fungus can easily wipe out an entire plantation of betel nut trees in a short period of time, said Cabrera.
Those who violate the emergency ban face $100 to $1,000 civil fine or a criminal penalty of up to $2,000 or six months in jail or both.
Because it is the nearest CNMI island to Guam, Rota’s betel nuts will be inspected, Cabrera said.
“We have to make sure that the betel nut trees there are not infected,” he added. “If they (are infected) at least we could do something to prevent it from spreading to other islands.”
Cabrera said the Department of Lands and Natural Resources and NMC-CREES are collaborating on this survey, which is set for the next two weeks. DLNR said should the disease spread to the CNMI, there is no method to control it other than to cut down the infected trees and burn them.
Growing betel nut trees is a thriving industry in the CNMI.
Cabrera said about 55 percent to 65 percent of the local population chew betel nuts.
“Every year, more people chew. Small kids learn it from adults. Culturally, we will never stop it,” Cabrera said.
It takes about six months to harvest fruits from a betel nut tree, Cabrera said. Thus, sellers import from Guam and Yap during the lean period to keep up with local demand.
Palau also used to export betel nuts to the CNMI but it has stopped to meet the island nation’s own demand.
Although growers only harvest betel nuts twice a year, it still brings in profit. Cabrera said a piece of land with 2,000 betel nut trees can bring in an income of $50,000 to $60,000 a year.
Scientific studies show chewing betel nut could lead to diseases, especially when it is mixed with lime, pepper leaf and tobacco. (With reports by Haidee Eugenio)